I had many all-nighters preparing for final exams throughout my college years. I would have my notes memorized and acronyms in place to ensure that no stone was left unturned when it came test time. I would be reading my notes all the way to class and continue reading them even while roll was being taken. The time would then arrive to put away the notes. The second hand on the clock would reach twelve and it would commence.
I can still hear the papers flipping as everyone began. I reach down in my bag, and to my dismay I realized I had no number two pencil. How is it that I could have everything in line, all my notes memorized, yet forgot something so crucial? How would I make my marks heavy and dark with a pen!?! Everything about the situation, at first, seemed perfect. The notes were memorized and there were acronyms for every list. Taking my test would not have even been possible without this item. You may be wondering what does forgetting a number two pencil for a test have to do with community.
Much like this in scenario a great number of us have the material down, we have our theological t’s crossed and i’s dotted. The thing that we are missing is crucial and without it we are hopeless in any attempt to express ourselves. Both in our churches and in the scenario we are blind to the fact that something essential is missing. Some of us may examine our church and believe that community is prospering. Others may hide behind the guise that because their church is large that it has many different communities within it. Whether large or small, both congregation types fall prey to this lack of biblical community.
In smaller churches many of the congregants are related, have known each other their entire lives, and live in close proximity to each other. In smaller congregations the problem is often not frequency of meeting, but lack of Christ in fellowship. Donald Barnhouse illustrates this idea perfectly in his response to the question, “What would a city look like if it was ruled by Satan?” Barnhouse responded by saying,
“All of the bars would be closed, pornography banished, and pristine streets would be filled with tidy pedestrians who smiled at each other. There would be no swearing. The children would say, “Yes, sir” and “No ma’am,” and the churches would be full every Sunday…where Christ is not preached.”
Much like the City ruled by Satan, our time together is frequent, our lives come across as spotless, but our community is missing Christ. The members of the smaller churches meet together often, their conversations abound, but they are missing the gospel. Larger churches are not exempt from this lack of community either. Although a large church may have enough events/programs to keep its doors open 7 days a week, it could still lack true biblical community. So what does biblical community look like, and how are so many of us missing it?
Biblical community begins with regular fellowship. All too often we settle for attending our weekly services, departing, and then going about our lives as normal. The life of a believer in the New Testament was characterized by regular day to day fellowship with other believers. Early in the book of Acts this theme of daily fellowship is brought up. In Acts 2 we can see the regularity of their fellowship when Luke said,
And they devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and the fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers. And awe came upon every soul, and many wonders and signs were being done through the apostles. And all who believed were together and had all things in common. And they were selling their possessions and belongings and distributing the proceeds to all, as any had need. And day by day, attending the temple together and breaking bread in their homes, they received their food with glad and generous hearts, praising God and having favor with all the people. And the Lord added to their number day by day those who were being saved. (Acts 2:42-7 ESV)
These believers were not just attending events at a church, but were living life together. Notice that Luke also points out that these believers were regularly eating meals together. This was not your church’s quarterly pot luck. These believers were regularly having each other into their homes for food and fellowship. Is your church too busy to experience these types of relationships? Do you have so many programs going on at your church that the congregants do not have time to spend with each other?
Not only are we too busy for each other, but we try to distance others from our personal space. I recently experienced a painful blow when reading Tim Chester’s new book A Meal with Jesus. I was confronted with the question, “When was the last time I had someone over to my house for fellowship and a meal?” Allow that thought to soak in for a bit. Often times I think we try to distance our church family from our personal lives. We long for more fellowship with the members of our church, but we do not want that to intrude into our personal space. These early Christians were integrating the church into their personal space and the result was gospel transformation. Could you classify your time spent with those within your church as fulfilling scripture’s description of community?
Although frequency of gathering is essential for biblical community, it does not end there. These believers were devoting themselves to the teaching of the apostles. Scripture was the focal point of their fellowship. The early Christians were devoted to fellowship that centered around Christ and his words. Your may spend a great deal of time with those from your church g, but is Christ the thing that fills your conversations? For biblical community to take place our conversations need to reflect Paul’s exhortation to the church of Colossae when he says, “Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly, teaching and admonishing one another in all wisdom (Col 3:16).”
I do not think that every conversation must somehow force Christ into it, but I do think Christ shouldn’t be a minority or excluded all together. For true Christian community to exist our conversations must build each other up in Christ. We see both of these themes brought up later on in Acts when Paul establishes the church of Ephesus. Paul devoted three years of his life to his relationship with these people. Luke describes the extent of the relationship between Paul and the church of Ephesus when he notes,
You yourselves know how I lived among you the whole time from the first day that I set foot in Asia,serving the Lord with all humility and with tears and with trials that happened to me through the plots of the Jews; how I did not shrink from declaring to you anything that was profitable, and teaching you in public and from house to house, testifying both to Jews and to Greeks of repentance toward God and of faith in our Lord Jesus Christ…Therefore be alert, remembering that for three years I did not cease night or day to admonish everyone with tears (Acts 20:18-31).
Paul’s departure after ministering in Ephesus for three years was accompanied by weeping (Acts 20:36-8). These people are not just acquaintances, but they are people who are deeply rooted into Paul’s life. Ask yourself, “Would my congregation weep at the news that I was moving?” “Would my congregation even notice that I was gone?” I pray these questions drive you, as they do me to examine whether you have been pursuing deep, honest, and real relationships with those within your congregation.
Whether we are members of large or small congregations, we all are susceptible to the same dangers. We are all often blind to the person sitting in the pew next to us. Take the time and turn your head, then interrupt the person’s life sitting next to you. Develop with them a deep and lasting relationship that is rooted in Christ, which experiences fellowship frequently.
So, what does biblical community look like? Can you see it within your congregation? Do you think it looks like not forgetting a pencil for a test? I don’t know. Maybe we could get together for coffee and talk about it?
 Donald Barnhouse, as quoted in Horton, Michael, Christless Christianity: The Alternative Gospel of the American Church (Ada, Michigan: Baker Books, 2008), 15.